Hiking in the High Fens of Belgium is an extremely popular pastime in all seasons. Here are four hikes of varying difficulty and distance on the High Fens, starting from Mont Rigi.
An introduction to the High Fens
The High Fens are otherwise known as the Hoge Venen (Dutch) or the Hautes Fagnes (French). Actually I will include their German name too – the Hohes Venn – as a large part of the fens is in German-speaking Belgium. The High Fens are among the most ancient and unspoiled landscapes in the Belgian Ardennes. Located between the towns of Malmedy, Eupen, Spa and Monschau, they are one of Europe’s last remaining high moors. It’s a wonderful area for hiking, in all seasons. Here I describe four hikes of varying distance and difficulty through the High Fens, each beginning and ending at Mont Rigi. There’s a car park and bus stop here. Interspersed with details of the walks are descriptions of the area and what to expect. All photos are by Discovering Belgium’s Roving Photographer Herman Vandecauter, who has visited the High Fens regularly over the years.
Protected and popular
The High Fens has been a protected area since 1957, which makes it the oldest conservation area in Wallonia, and probably the best-known nature reserve in Belgium. In 1971 the High Fens – Eifel Nature Park was formed. It’s a cross-border park, with 70,000 hectares in Belgium and 170,000 hectares in Germany. In all seasons the High Fens region attracts a vast number of visitors, who come to wander, cycle, horse-ride and even ski here. Part of its attraction is its barrenness. Despite its popularity, during the off-season it can be virtually deserted, giving the visitor a feel of being in authentic, even primeval, wilderness. And that’s exactly what it is. A soil low in nutrients. Undulating ground that holds water like a sponge. Climate which can feel Arctic in the winter. The absence of human settlements. An eerie silence that gives an other-worldly atmosphere. (Not on popular weekends though!).
Heed the warnings!
In high season, particularly in the winter after a snowfall, the area can be teeming with visitors. Dangerously so, at times. Just recently (late December 2020) the Belgian Federal Police issued a warning that tourists should stay away from the area at the weekend. Not only because the roads were icy, but also to reduce over-full car parks and crowds of walkers – not recommended in these COVID times. Hundreds of people ignored their warnings. The result was chaos. From 9 a.m., the main car parks were already full. Cars and motorhomes then took possession of the sides of the roads over several kilometers. As the verges were soft and covered with snow, several vehicles landed in the ditches. The roads were blocked. Emergency pickup trucks couldn’t get through. For many people, what was intended to be a fun day hiking in the High Fens turned out otherwise. So please check the news before you set off to the High Fens, and if possible avoid weekends and national holidays.
La Fagne de la Poleûr 3.3 km walk
A good introduction to the High Fens is this family-friendly and stroller-friendly walk over boardwalks through La Fagne de la Poleûr. Starting point is the car park and bus stop at Mont Rigi. It’s a 3.3 kilometer circular trail that offers good scenic views. A number of information boards describe the natural history of the High Fens. Map is below: click to embiggen; download/print as a PDF; get the GPX route from RouteYou.
Watch the weather!
When hiking in the High Fens, watching the weather is essential. On average, the High Fens gets 230 days of precipitation, 178 foggy days, 113 days of frost, and 78 days of snow per year. That’s a lot of weather! Moreover, it changes rapidly. I’ve been walking in bright sunshine under a clear sky one minute, and in a hailstorm under black clouds five minutes later. Storms are characteristically local too. Fans of motor racing know this all too well. The race track at Spa-Francorchamps is not too far away. Sometimes one part of the track will be under water after a deluge, while other parts of the track will be bone dry. So when hiking in the High Fens, the Boy Scouts’ motto is one to take to heart: Be Prepared!
La Fagne de la Poleûr 5.3 km walk
This one is based on the one above but extends it by a couple of kilometres. It’s less on boardwalks than the shorter one above. Again, starting point is the car park and bus stop at Mont Rigi. Click on the map to enlarge; download as a PDF; GPX track from RouteYou.
Wet wet wet
One thing you’ll probably notice when walking in the High Fens is that your feet are wet. From September to May the ground is like a heavy sponge. Thankfully, in many areas boardwalks have been placed to make it possible to walk above ground. But even in the summer months the ground retains its moisture. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the plateau is the first obstacle encountered by the clouds coming in from the Atlantic. This results in an above-average precipitation of over 1,400 mm of rain per year. Secondly, the local rock is impermeable, which prevents the precipitation from finding its way down to lower levels. Put these together and you get wetlands, wet moors, swamps, and therefore – if you go off the boardwalks – the need for strong waterproof boots.
Mont Rigi 9 km walk
You can see from the map below that this walk covers part of the route around La Fagne de la Poleûr but then diverts south-east into new territory. You’ll probably need three hours to do this, especially if you have children, or longer if you frequently stop, rest, and enjoy the sights. If you are doing this one in the winter, take some snacks or even some lunch, to top up your energy levels. A warm drink or soup in a thermos flask is a good idea too. The map of the route is below. Click to embiggen. Download here as a PDF. Get the GPX track from RouteYou.
Streams and rivers
Of course, there is a limit to the amount of water that the High Fens can hold. When this is reached, small rivulets appear, gathering together into streams that merge and form rivers. Some of these are magnets for hikers and photographers: the Schwalm, the Gileppe, the Getzbach, the Weser, the Eschbach, the Rur, the Warche, the Trôs Marêts, the Holzwarche, the Warche, the Steinbach. Over the years some of them have formed spectacular valleys and ravines. Much of their water is collected by four large dams. The Gileppe dam was built back in 1875. Others are in Eupen, Bütgenbach and Robertville. Together, they supply more than a million people with drinking water and help to generate green electricity.
Mont Rigi 18 km walk
This is a route for the seasoned hiker. It will take you all day so start early and take enough food and fluids. The map is below which you can click to embiggen or download as a PDF. The GPX track is at RouteYou.
flora and fauna
Sometimes when hiking in the High Fens you’ll wonder if anything grows there apart from the sphagnum moss which is everywhere in its clumps and cushions. But look closely – in the right season – and you’ll find heather, cross-leaved heath, rushes and sedges, as well as bog asphodel, cottongrass, marsh gentian and bog rosemary. Get on your hands and knees and you may find the insectivorous sundew. In the drier areas look for cranberry, bilberry and bog bilberry. In April, in some of the valleys, wild daffodils transform the hillsides yellow.
The birds you can see depend on the season. In the spring and summer you might find yourself accompanied by meadow pipits, skylarks, wheatears, grasshopper warblers and the occasional raven. Rarer birds that breed in the area include the pygmy owl, Tengmalm’s owl, goshawk, red kite, and black stork, although the only one of these I’ve seen is the black stork. However, I was lucky enough to see a huge flock of cranes pass overhead during the spring migration one year. In winter you’re more likely to see flocks of finches and tits. Animals of the High Fens include red deer, roe deer, wild boar, wild cats, badgers and foxes.
I do hope you find this information on hiking in the High Fens useful, and that you are able to use the routes. These routes all start from Mont Rigi. In a future post I will be giving you some more hiking routes starting and ending at Signal de Botrange, which is the highest point in Belgium. Elsewhere on this blog you can find other routes in High Fens area:
And if you are interested in hiking elsewhere in the Ardennes, check out:
- Walking in the Anlier Forest
- Five winter walks in the Ardennes
- Hiking along the River Lesse
- Exploring La Fange de l’Abîme
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